Learning from the Wings: never surrender

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

With an Over Time loss yesterday, Detroit suddenly sits in a 2-3 series hole in the first round of play-offs against Anaheim, facing a sudden-death potential exit game at the Joe on Friday, American time.

With such jeopardy facing the Wings, I want to say right now that I’m very proud of my team.

All season, coach Mike Babcock has been trying to find the magic; putting this player with that, introducing defenders (one who literally arrived at the club on the morning of an early-season game, a guy Babs admitted he barely knew anything about), just holding things together. Helm’s been out all shortened season with his mysterious back, Bertuzzi for almost the entire season … it’s just been one of those seasons of pure struggle.

I was really pleased that the team found cohesion and form to roar into the play-offs for the 22nd straight year, when that could so easily not have happened. And now, against the more highly-rated Ducks, they’ve been dogged and determined and about a goal-a-game short of where they need to be.

In Game 4, it was the Wings that kept falling behind; somehow hanging on by their fingernails to take the game to OT, where Brunner and the rookies combined to steal it. But today was the other way. The Wings got the first goal, then allowed the Ducks one. Detroit got the go-ahead goal but couldn’t hang on to the advantage. The third OT of the series, and it was Anaheim that scored.

Another day, another desperate struggle. Which is how it’s been since the lock-out ended.

I’m not giving up on this Western Conference quarter-final. Game 6 is at the Joe and the Wings have shown that on their day, they can score and score heavily. Which is what they need to do to make Game 7. But they could just as easily be strangled; not be able to find the net. Hank Zetterberg, who has been brilliant all season as our new captain, has yet to score in the play-offs, and Filp has gone cold again. We’re pushing it, to rack up enough goals to overwhelm the experienced, confident Ducks.

This absorbing battle has mostly been what’s kept me going over the past week or so. My life has been a rollercoaster (although it’s actually fine: all minor bushfires, not major scares).

Like Detroit, I just don’t seem to be able to find the goal often enough; can’t score wins lately in many areas of my life. I’ve taken the Wings’ lesson and kept pushing and persevering, but it can be hard. You want life to be one way and it’s another; you have ambitions and dreams and they drift tantalizingly out of reach. All you can do is breathe, and tell yourself that the buzzer hasn’t gone. Keep your head up. Chase the puck.

On Sunday night, I played for the Nite Owls, where I can feel out of my depth. Many of my teammates have played for 40 years or more and skate without effort or thought. My skating has come along in the last few months – no longer endlessly camped on my inside edges… yes! – but I’m pretty wobbly compared to these old gliders. They notice every hole in my game, in a good way; telling me to skate with both hands on my stick (a bad habit) and to stay high on the blue line in D, things like that. I don’t mind. I respect their experience and game sense and I’m still up for learning everything I can. Even better, I managed to find my way to my usual place in the slot, to jam home the first goal of the night, which gave me a feeling of belonging. I even almost managed to Holmstrom-deflect another goal, which hopefully made my teammates realize the 48-year-old they call “lad” isn’t a total muppet.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he's getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he’s getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

But by Wednesday, another few life kicks had me really struggling to ward off a general feeling of emotional flatness. Mackquist was sick with a cold and I thought about missing hockey, mostly to look after him, but also because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to compete in the occasionally wild and willing dev league games.

How sad sack are you to baulk at the idea of playing hockey? Even I couldn’t stomach that … I’m definitely unable to make Sunday’s Nite Owls play, so decided I really wanted to get in some skating this week, and should go. I checked Mack was alive enough for me to head to the Icehouse after all.

Of course, it was a brilliant night. The hockey was fast, furious and good-natured.

Before the game, I’d joked to another player, Todd Harbour, that I was going to kill someone. ‘And if I kill early, I plan to hunt again.’ I was deadpan and he looked worried but then smiled. Minutes in, battling for a loose puck on the blue line, I met an opponent head-on and they went flying backward, landing flat. Yes, it was Todd. I swear, Mr Harbour, I didn’t know it was you. And I was joking beforehand.

Later in that game, Big Cat and I combined for one of my favourite goals ever; me winning a battle on the defensive blue line and sneaking a short pass to his stick, then following his charge down the ice to be there when his shot rebounded off the top crossbar and between goalie Chris Lourey’s pads. I poked home the goal, for an epic one-two-one-two Place combination. Sometimes you have to remember why you got into something in the first place, and playing alongside my boy(s) was a prime motivation for my dive into this crazy world. Playing alongside Big Cat and having that kind of understanding on the ice remains awesome.

Usually I’m pretty buggered by the end of the 10 pm game, staggering into the night, knowing I won’t sleep before 1 am or more and have to wake to a 6.30 am alarm. Last night, I just wanted to keep skating, to keep chasing the puck; all the worries and annoyances of the real world blown away as I felt my legs burn and my chest gasp for air, and laughed with my hockey mates, bantered and sledged the coaches Lliam, Army and Tommy, and couldn’t wait for my next shift, and then the next shift, and then the next shift.

Damn, I love hockey when it’s like that.

And now, that hockey momentum has carried into the real world so that a few of the disappointments dogging me all week seem to be not quite so black. Maybe I’m not out of the game after all? Just like the Wings, I’m definitely 2-3 down in a seven-game series, but that just means I need to keep winning, right?

I have no idea, after watching yesterday’s game, which way the Wings-Duck series will go, but I’m proud of my Detroit team either way.

They just never ever stop trying, pushing forward, believing. It’s the Red Wing mantra, a non-negotiable, and I wish I could explain it to my AFL team, Richmond, which is building and building but does not yet believe. Something I can be guilty of as well.

I need to hang on to the Red Wings’ sense of self-confidence and excellence, no matter the scoreline; refusing to concede until the buzzer says it’s over …

And it ain’t, Anaheim Ducks. It ain’t over at all.

Channeling the Geebung

One of my favourite Australian writers ever is Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and probably my favourite of his poems is ‘The Geebung Polo Club. I used to be able to recite it by heart and even now I can get chunks of it. The first stanza goes a little something like this:

It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash
– They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.

It’s sounding familiar already, if you’ve watched Wednesday night dev league this term, especially the lawless 10 pm session.

The poem goes on to recount what happens when the wild Geebung bush boys and the gentile Cuff and Collar team from the city finally go at it in a landmark polo match:

Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman's depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman’s depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Yep, there can be no doubt. The Banjo, way back in 1893, was channeling the Icehouse on a Wednesday night. You only have to look at me, hobbling a little as I go about my desk job today, the shameful opposite of Clancy of the Overflow. Last night, I got a nasty whack to my good knee (yes, I now think of my right knee as my ‘good’ knee, which is a worry in itself), and my right arm and lower back and neck are all sore.

I’m not complaining; not at all. But man, dev league has stepped up this term, with regard to intensity and danger.

The knee got bruised in Game 1, when an opponent lost an edge and crashed into me, just as I was pulling up after a whistle and therefore was relaxed, unprotected. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour. I was suddenly taken out and hit the boards, a metre or so away, in an uncontrolled fall, which is how I have seen fellow students break collarbones. So I accepted a sore knee, gladly, and kept skating. The guy who had accidentally taken me out was genuinely apologetic, too, which was nice.

But as I said, it’s second dev league (the 10 pm class) that has become really willing. Pretty much everybody out there has done quite a few rounds of dev, and played summer or winter hockey, so we all know what we’re doing enough that the coaches don’t really bother to coach us much. I’ve suggested to Matt Armstrong that he should stop calling it development league and instead call it: ‘Army’s Happy Scrimmage Club’.

Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell turned up last night, as bench coaches, back from the world championships in Croatia, and yelled constructive abuse as we battled up and down the rink, but there were still far too many hits than there should be in a learning game, not to mention blatant tripping and other atrocities. Nobody was playing dirty hockey; just intense – and I was as guilty as anybody, accidentally tripping someone, and also forcing a huge front-on collision while skating fast to defend, when my opponent didn’t veer as I’d expected. A game of chicken on ice gone wrong. We both went down hard and my chin is still sore where my helmet dug in on impact. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour.

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs ... (see below)

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs … (see below)

So I’m creaking around today but feeling alive. Had a shot somehow hit both posts and not go in. Screwed up a penalty shot, to Lliam’s well-vocalised dismay. Inexplicably skated like somebody who hadn’t been on skates for three months, although I’d played for the Nite Owls on Sunday in a 5-0 win that had one of my veteran teammates shake hands with me afterwards, saying: ‘Well done, lad.’ Lad! Another Owl giving me skating advice that, while completely well intentioned, might have resulted in last night’s proppiness, as I found myself doubting my stride, how I move. Or maybe I just shouldn’t eat a large burrito before playing? Something wasn’t right. I wish I had time for a general skate between now and Sunday night’s game to regain my legs. Ah well. The learning curve continues. Endlessly continues.

And, as a final note, I did have a win last night which means I’m travelling better than my beloved Wings who suffered a probably inevitable emotional letdown, after such a brilliant run to sneak into the play-offs, and lost Game 1 to Anaheim yesterday. Gotta bounce back in Game 2 tomorrow, or it could be over as fast as it began.

And I’m also going better than the poor Melbourne Mustangs, who have training tonight at the Henke Rink and will be greeted by giant, larger-than-life posters of every Melbourne Ice player, lining the rink. Having the three massive scrolls celebrating the Ice’s three-peat AIHL triumphs wasn’t enough, apparently. The Ice player posters look seriously impressive, but I’d hate to be a Mustang skating onto the rink tonight. All the Icehouse needs is a tiny sign, to the right of the last poster, saying in small letters: ‘The Mustangs play here too.”

It’s lucky the gee-gees have such a cool horsey mascot. They’ll be fine.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.

A sleepy Sunday makes for happy Owls

Dusk settles over Melbourne and the streets start to empty, as families head home to bunker in, resting up with the TV glowing, to get ready for the work week ahead. At Piedemontes, my local supermarket, I’m lucky to be in the ‘handbasket only’ queue, so that I avoid the bumper trolleys. Gillian Welch’s ‘I build a highway back to you’ is my soundtrack as the sky settles into pink, deepening, and I open the door of Fern Cottage, my little pre-Federation workers cottage in North Fitzroy, and close out the world, escaping the chill just starting to bite now the sun has gone.

I pour a white wine and put on some Melody Gardot. ‘Your heart is as black as night’ fills the kitchen as I make an omelette for dinner – pushing my culinary capacity to the limit but timing the turn in the pan just right. My new microwave is trusted with handling the cooking of the broccoli and proves up to the task. Of course, one of my boys has stolen into the house at some stage while I wasn’t looking and eaten all the potato chips, which was to be my secret, guilty last dinner ingredient, so that saves my belly some unneeded calories.

It’s only 6.15 pm as I sit down to eat – absurdly early for the night-time meal. The last game of the AFL round hasn’t even finished and I’m eating according to some retirement home timetable.

Calvados - the final shot that did all the damage.

Calvados – the final shot that did all the damage.

It’s not just the hangover. Having that final shot of Calvados, technically a brandy, in reality a lethal poison, wasn’t a great idea the night before. The music had finished at La Niche café, and I’d already had an on-the-house final shot of La Nichette – drinking chocolate with some kind of pear liqueur. And that was after a final shot of Chouchen, a French liqueur so dangerous that punters reportedly have to be hooked onto their stools at some bars in Brittany, for danger of toppling backwards after imbibing. Chloe, my partner and the expert on all this, tells me that she tends to avoid Chouchen because she loses all feeling in her lower face after a few shots. Her theory is that’s because of the bee venom, mixed among the honey, which shows how old-skool Bretonne she is. Reading up on it, venom hasn’t been an official ingredient for a while.

Anyway, the bike ride home from all that was an adventure and Sunday has been understandably quiet. Darkness now gives me every excuse in the world to curl up on the couch, pour a restorative whisky and watch ‘Top of the Lake’, succumbing to my body’s tiredness and my sluggish brain.

Which is why, of course, I am about to instead drag my hockey bag and sticks to the car, and set a course towards Docklands.

Because I am now a member of the Nite Owls, a hockey underworld which unfolds like a ghost story at the Icehouse every Sunday night; the spirits of hockey past drifting into Melbourne’s state-of-the-art hockey rink from all parts of the city. Plus a few of us self-styled rookies from the past few years, who happen to have taken up the sport a little late. ‘Over 35’ is the qualification but many of the Nite Owls players passed that marker many, many years ago.

On Sunday nights, in the most organized unofficial social comp you could ever find, these men and women take over the Henke Rink and play a brand of hockey marked less by furious pace and body-work than astonishing stick-handling and the canny hockey-sense of years on the ice.

And then there’s me; 13 years past the entrance age, with my P-plate skills and skating, feeling like the new kid at school as I walk into the locker-room and find a bunch of strangers, featuring a wild variety of ages and physiques as well as the occasional friendly face from my hockey classes and summer league. Tonight’s my first actual game for a Nite Owls team, after taking part in an unofficial scrimmage last week, involving one old-timer who I was told is a former captain of Australia, now in his Seventies. Still owning the ice as I, badly propping up defence as the new kid, grinned from the blue line.

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey's popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey’s popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

I can take some inspiration into tonight from a slightly higher standard and more intense game of hockey that took place on the Henke Rink yesterday afternoon. I was in a VIP Box, kindly hosted by the boys from the Ice-Threepeat doco, which meant I was right on the glass as Melbourne Ice and the Melbourne Mustangs opened their AIHL seasons. I sipped my beer as the Mustangs president, I assume, made the longest pre-game speech in hockey history, totally negating the warm-up the players had completed before lining up for a national anthem that was finally sung 15 or 20 minutes later.

Anyway, at last, the puck was dropped and it was so good to be back, watching my coaches Matt Armstrong, Jason Baclig, and Joey Hughes show what they can do when playing for real. (Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell are representing Australia overseas this week).

As Icehouse or Next Level students, we can get complacent about being on the ice with players of this ability. Army maybe hits second gear every now and then, trying to show Icehouse students how to do a move, like a transition or a drill. At the start of class, as students hang laps to get their feet moving and settle onto the ice, Lliam especially loves to hoon around, trying trick shots against the goalies, but even then, we all know he’s not raising a sweat.

Playing for the Ice, only a pane of strong glass away, they reminded me of just how good they are. And nobody here made NHL standard. Holy crap. The stratosphere of hockey ability is high.

I was sharing the box with Jaffa, who coached the Ice to the three straight Goodall Cups, including last year’s, and retired after the 2012 season. He was remarkably calm, given this was his first game not in charge. Yet every comment about a player was so insightful, so totally accurate; spotting the slightest weakness or strength. It must be a strange sensation to have so much knowledge and such great hockey eyes and not really now be able to use them.

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

Andy Lamrock, also retired as president of the Ice, was there too, pressure off, able to chat instead of sweat every little detail. As were the doco makers, Jason and Shannon, who at this game last year would have been racing around the Icehouse, getting migraines, trying to shoot everything at once and follow multiple storylines. Joey gingerly feeling an arm after a hit – is that major or not? Austin McKenzie scoring fast for the Ice, after failing to find the net for all of last season. Did we get that on tape?

Nope, because this time they were sipping beers and watching, along with the packed stands of the Icehouse. Arriving at the game, the queue to get in had stretched way down Pearl River Road, with a strong blend of the Mustang orange and the Ice white and blue. It was a Mustangs home game so that club gets the receipts, which is a nice start to the year financially. But the Ice won 7-2 and looked very sharp. Ice fans are going to pack the joint every single week.

But not on a Sunday night. That’s when the Nite Owls shuffle into the change rooms and then creak onto the ice. To create hockey magic over and over again for the empty stands, and for the sheer bloody fun of it, years peeling away, or just getting started, depending on where you’re at in your crazy hockey journey.

It’s now 7.30 pm. Dark and quiet outside, with Melbourne settled in front of the television. But ‘The Voice’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ will have to soldier on without me. I’m heading to my car.

Late on a Tuesday

By Nicko

The new stride. Arms swinging, skating on the left foot, heading out towards 11 o’clock, and now the right skate, in the air, touches the left skate at the ankle. Not a bounce, not a click, like Dorothy in Oz, just a gentle touch.

And with that, the right foot touches down, takes my weight and on that foot, pushing through the upper leg and the knee, I glide off to 1 o’clock, left foot trailing and now coming to meet the right ankle, underneath my body, ready for the exchange of weight right under my hockey stance.

The new stride? Hell, this should always have been my stride. Somewhere I went wrong, especially in games, and so I’m back in a General Skate, hanging laps like I was constantly last year, but not so much this year. My skates feeling strange under me, as my weight is in different places, very deliberately not camped on the inside edge, dodging the random learner skaters scattered around the Bradbury Rink, and the figure skaters working on their moves pre-class.

A bearded figure emerges from inside the skate sharpening booth, and waves, so I hop off the ice and am met by Lliam Webster, standing extremely upright and turning like Ned Kelly in full armour to face me and say hello. Or maybe like Val Kilmer as Batman, in that movie where they truly screwed up his suit so he couldn’t turn his head at all and had to twist his entire torso to look around.

Lliam Webster, today.

Turns out Lliam pulled up from the weekend with a sore neck.

I have a bandaged wrist; either from Friday night’s three hours of stick handling or an overly-ambitious Diesel Williams handball attempt gone wrong at the Bang on Sunday, I’m not sure.

Both battered from the weekend. Life’s good.

I return to the rink for the last few minutes of General Skate before the figure skaters take over, and work on my still depressingly non-existent outside edges. I creak around corners, trying to move my shoulders, even do the airplane like Martin Kutek showed me. At one stage I fall, but I’ve got knees and elbows on, as well as my gloves, so it’s okay. Eventually I get frustrated and try to skate as fast as I can, which leads to an even better stack, as I lean too far forward at high speed and end up sliding from red line beyond the blue on my knees and gloves. I resist the urge to yell: “Weeeee!”

Shouldn’t I be past incidents like that by now? I guess not. Joey Hughes told me he goes back to the absolute basics for a couple of weeks before Melbourne Ice pre-season training starts. Does everything they teach us in Intro class; swizels, C-cuts, inside and outside edges work, crossovers … if it’s good enough for him, then I can do it, to get my new stride happening, and leave wide-legged, immobile Nicko behind.

I work some more on my edges and then notice a child, flawlessly skating on her outside edge, arms spread in figure skater stance. She cuts a tight left hander and then goes into spins, completing four perfectly before stopping. She bursts into tears and heads for the boards.

Her mum explains to me that she has to get to five spins to complete the move and is frustrated she can’t get that fifth turn. This little girl who literally maybe comes up to my waist. She’s five years old, started skating two years ago.

I’d kill for her outside edges and balance.

She cries gently into the boards as her father consoles her.

I hang a few more laps until Army and Tommy wander past, on their way to the Zamboni garage. They’re heading to Perth this weekend, the Ice needing one win in the last three games to confirm top spot in their division of the AIHL. Joey’s back from suspension for the second game in Perth, giving the Ice two killer lines. Mercifully they’re not flying the plane that lands early on Saturday morning, needing to play later that night. Instead they’ll arrive on Friday and get some sleep. Lliam’s neck is in for a rough weekend.

I wish them luck. Army encourages me to keep working on the stride. Says he’ll see me at class tomorrow. Then kicks me off the ice. I unlace my skates, leave them for a sharpen, wander into the cold dusk, to my car and my dog, and let the real world swallow me whole.

A question without notice

So, a strange thing happened on Wednesday night in the Icehouse change room.

A friendly member of the local hockey community … unlike that prick, Nicko Place.

Walking off the ice from Dev League, I congratulated my opposition winger, Theresa, on a good game, and she returned the compliment.

Then, with a big smile, said to me: “So Nicko, are you coming to the Melbourne Ice Gala?”

The Gala is a big swanky annual sit-down dinner where the hockey community gets dressed up in formal gear (well, more formal than armour and sweaty jerseys, and mostly favouring shoes instead of skates on the dance-floor). This year is a big one because it’s to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary.

Theresa, welcoming, ever the energetic social driver of our crew, asking me if I wanted a seat on the Rookies’ table? To which I replied, without even thinking, in a question-without-notice reflex action: “No.”

Theresa’s smile dropping. “How come?”

And I replied, honestly: “I just don’t do those kind of things.”

Which was honest but kind of blunt.

(** and yes, this entire post is a way of apologising, to Theresa, and Wayne, who is – * spoiler alert * – still to come in this anecdote…)

Outside, back in street clothes, about to head off into the night, another Rookie, Wayne (see, told you), asked the same question: “Coming to the gala, Nicko?”

“Nope,” I said. “Any night at the pub with you guys, I’m there. Not the gala.”

And off I went, safe in my suddenly unexpected crowning as the antisocial bastard of the night.

But not feeling great, despite the glory of Aimee and my “perfect” two-on-one tic-tac-toe goals during Intermediate, or some decent efforts by me in Dev League, even if I did screw up in the final minute which led directly to an opposition goal. Oops.

Anyway, doing my usual Wednesday night post-hockey thing of lying wide-awake until after 2 am, I thought about it. Why would my instant reaction to the gala be no? I love the hockey crowd, I would be happy to sit and break bread with pretty much anybody in that world. I like alcohol, a lot. Especially with friends.

So why my instant, brutal dismissal of a fun, formal night out?

It took me two days to work it out, and the good news is that it’s baggage from my past; nothing to do with hockey. In fact, it led to an even deeper love of hockey … I’ll explain.

You see, I was a sportswriter for many years, for The Herald and then The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, as well as The Age online and more recently my own company, Media Giants. I also worked for ten years, off and on, as a reporter/producer/writer for the Seven Network.

It was a great life, in a lot of ways. I covered tennis, including all the Grand Slams (Roland Garros remains the best event I think I ever covered), as well as boxing (including a lot of Jeff Fenech’s world title fights), field hockey and other sports.

Mostly I covered AFL.

And here’s where Wednesday night’s knee-jerk reaction came from.

In tennis and AFL, there are players and there are fans. Football likes to talk of itself as a “family”, but it’s not. There are those who have set foot on a VFL or AFL field, and the rest of us.

(Another warning: there’s some name-dropping ahead. I promise it is to make a point.)

In tennis, where players are told by coaches, family, everybody that they are only a peg or two down from God because they hit a decent forehand when they were 11 years old, the Us and Them is very pronounced. Think rock stars egos with racquets. I remember one story where an Australian player had her arse handed to her at Eastbourne, the women’s pre-Wimbledon event, and her furious coach decided it was time to lay it on the line, let her know that effort was simply not good enough, to really strip things down to the horrible truth … he walked into the players’ lounge and found said player reclining, enjoying a foot massage from her mummy, while her daddy held her hand and literally spoon-fed her, her agent tut-tutting sympathetically off to the side. This player was in her 20s at the time.

Trust me when I tell you that if you’re a journalist who writes that a player who lost 6-1, 6-0 didn’t play well, you can expect attitude from the player and his mates. Seriously. I’ve been there. Had the walls go up from the Australian players as a collective, because I didn’t write the usual excuses and “gee, he tried hard” crap. For all the glamour of covering Wimbledon or the French, Davis Cup in exotic locations, I was happy to leave that world. The players can’t work out why the media isn’t just an extension of their fan club, which includes everybody who makes money out of their success, and star struck fans.

The Woodies – Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge: great people on and off the court.

I’m generalizing here, obviously – and there are distinct and welcome exceptions, who I’m going to name because I’d be horrified on the off-chance they read this and thought I was talking about them. So I am explicitly excluding Mark Woodforde, Todd Woodbridge, Nicole Provis, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl, and a bunch of the Swedish players, who generally, in my experience, didn’t take themselves so seriously, including former world No. 1s Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander. Even Rod Laver – total gentleman, and unaffected by his astonishing record. Others were cool too; including Steffi Graf who showed a lot of poise and grace while carrying a heavy load of battling English and German tabloids.

And then there’s the AFL. I would like to think I have made some genuinely good friends out of footy, and there are wonderful people and players and ex-players who have a welcome perspective on their world.

But many do not and that’s where the Ice Gala comes in (at last). I have suffered through so many AFL functions where there are the players, and everybody else. The players place such a premium on “one-for-all, all-for-one” and all that locker-room crap that they have trouble turning it off once they’re in public, if they even try to.

Fans will approach their table at a club function and the players will mostly be polite, pose for photos etc, but their hearts are rarely in it. Their eyes are often empty, veiled. Media, fans, sponsors … we’re all a kind of annoying sideline to their fame.

And this is what I unwittingly projected onto the Melbourne Ice Gala, when Theresa landed that unexpected question.

It was only on reflection that I realized part of me had gone back to footy/tennis mode. And that was wildly unfair, because the beautiful end to this rant is that hockey is so, so, so different.

One of the reasons I love this world is the lack of pretension, the lack of egos. There’s Matt Armstrong, currently one of the top scorers in the AIHL this season, a veteran of seriously high-quality international competition, driving the Zamboni on a weekday, laughing with us rookies and teaching us with endless patience. Likewise, Lliam, Tommy and Shona, all Australian representatives but never once looking down their noses at mere mortal strugglers like us.

Joey Hughes teaching his unique philosophy and hockey skills at the very unglamorous Oakleigh rink. Giving, giving, giving.

So, I hate that I projected AFL sensibilities onto these people. I swear to remember, wherever possible, how grateful I am to be in this underground, cult-like, happy, friendly, intense world of Melbourne hockey. Solidarity, brothers and sisters. That gala would actually be a lot of fun, and I hope everybody there takes a moment to realize how special it is that the Ice players like Lliam, Army, Tommy, Jason et al, are genuinely happy to chat with fans and rookies, instead of just doing their time because they have to.

Army keeping it real in the local hockey version of an ice bath. Pic: Melbourne Ice

Take it from me, who has sailed the wider waters of international sport. This is a rare treasure.

And no, I still won’t be there … turns out it’s the same weekend that my kids film festival, Little Big Shots  is at the Sydney Opera House, so I’ll be in the Opera House green room, smiling quietly as artistic egos fill the room.

But Theresa, Wayne and other rookies, Lliam, Army and co, have a drink for me. Keep your eye out for how Ice Man manages to drink through that helmet of his … I’ve always wondered. And can he fit a tux over his armour?

I genuinely wish I could be there. Really.

We get our pucks on the coast

I’m typing this after attempting some puck-handling practice at Lorne, on a netball court at the poetically named Stribling Reserve. It was about 30 degrees (Celsius, for any Detroit folk reading – as in, 100 degrees F; hot!) but the view is spectacular, down the hill to crashing surf and the Lorne pier. I maintain that the adjacent footy oval, home to the mighty Lorne Dolphins (“We get our kicks on the coast”) is the most scenic place to watch Aussie Rules in Australia. But I might be wrong. I haven’t been to every oval, as a mate, Matt Zurbo, is currently attempting.

Hockey training at Lorne. Bad skills. Good view.

So I half-heartedly tried to learn how to roll my wrist to make wrist shots fly, rather than fizzle along the ground. Big Cat Place (the artist formerly known as Kittens) patiently instructed me on the various elements required to make this shot and none of them came together as I became more dehydrated and warm, the puck rolling ever more slowly. Down below, waves crashed and looked inviting. Been a while since I surfed …

All this is on Good Friday after a typically eventful hockey week. The Red Wings beat the Blues in a thriller, away, then lost what should have been an easy win at home. No idea if they’ll switch on in time for the looming play-offs. Meanwhile, in my hockey world,  Tuesday Dev League was the worst game I’ve been part of.

Tuesday’s crew seems to divide into established, well skilled players who can really skate, and people like me just finding their way at a Dev League level. Tuesday is supposed to be “intro dev league” after all. Usually, we’re all mixed together so the game is pretty even (last week, I scored two goals, so that gives you an idea of the level) but somehow, on Tuesday, all the good players got together on the dark team, against the P-Platers in white.

And it was ugly. You suddenly had guys who play for real teams, like the Ice Wolves, and play together, full-ice passing to one another, operating with teammate understanding and stripping our team of the puck if we got halfway own the ice towards our net. Plus we lost two guys off our bench – one to a strained stomach muscle, the other to a nasty cut to the bone, when a skate sliced his forearm as a player jumped the boards between shifts. I think the final score would have been something like 25-4. And of course, it was the first game that a French girl I’d like to impress had come to see what all the hockey fuss is about. So much for that plan.

Wednesday was a lot more fun. Midway through Tuesday’s debacle, while I was on the bench, muttering darkly to Army the coach that it was great to play against the Red Wings’ dev team, he said my skating needed work. I resisted the urge to say: “No, shit, Sherlock” and instead asked what specifically he saw as the problem. He said my legs are too far apart when I glide, so that I end up camped on my inside edges – which I totally agreed, but had no real idea how to fix.

So Wednesday, Army grinned and said: “Because it’s your birthday, we’re going to devote the class to your skating.” And pretty much did – nothing but remorseless and difficult outside edges/inside edges/pivots/transitions. Scuba, a former Melbourne Ice player and one of our coaches, who had been missing for months, setting up a new business, turned up because Lliam and Tommy are overseas with the national team, so it was great to see him, and to watch how well he skates.

So we stumbled and fumbled and looked for outside edges. Army dragged Big Cat and then me aside for specific pointers, and it turns out he was telling us exactly the same thing, for the same foot, which was kind of weird.

Hereditary skating issues?

The cool thing was that in one of the final drills with Scuba, where we had to skate around traffic cones quite fast in a square, front foot on an outside edge taking us around the corner, I started to “feel it” for the first time. As in, I genuinely found the outside edge and turned sharply, weight on the leg, just like you’re supposed to. Everybody has been telling me (especially coach Michael) that once you commit, lean, and feel it once or twice, it gets easier and maybe that’s true? I hope so because for the first time, I feel like I know what it should feel like and maybe I can get my legs and weight in the right place to make it happen. Easter Monday has a Come & Try session in the afternoon, where the search shall resume. Possibly painfully.

Wednesday’s 10 pm Intermediate Dev League was fun, although I was mediocre. Heavy legged, for no real reason. Just not skating like I know I can, even with the flaws Army is onto. Pre-game, everybody had been promising to gift me a birthday goal and I’d vowed that I didn’t want charity … then spent the game, hoping they’d give me charity. But no. This is hockey.

I actually had a decent shot early in the game but my attempt diverted off a skate, so no joy. I was better in defence, even stopping a shot by Big Cat Place, who hit it straight into my chest, above the heart. Good way to test if my birthday-aged heart is still up to such shenanigans. I caught it off my chest in my glove and calmly cleared the puck from our defensive blue line, unfazed.

Not dead yet.

The Quadrella, Part III

Dev League, Tuesday night, in full flight. Pic: by me, on iPhone, on the bench. Cool or dweeb? Such a fine line.

The Third Leg, Tuesday: 5 pm and we’re in the Icehouse change-rooms and it’s silent. Everybody’s lost in thought, shifting gears from work, uni, relationships and whatever else is swirling in real life, as they strap on armour, tape socks, yank skate laces and move into a hockey head space.

We hit the ice and I snowplough hard on my right leg and my quadriceps in that limb aren’t even close to happy. I have a half-hearted shot at the empty net and skate straight to the centre circle for some serious stretching. Oh, that’s right … it’s less than 24 hours since all that skipping and moving and boxing with Mischa. Something is rebelling deep under my left shoulder blade too. Two legs of the quadrella to go and the pain is rising. But I’m a hockey player, right? And I’m loving being back on the ice after almost a week. It’s time to play hockey. I snarl and grin and head to the bench, resplendent in my Slap Slot “Chiefs” jersey (Hanson 17).

Bring it.

And the game is a cracker. This is Intro Dev League and I’m starting to be able to keep up, even if there is one uy, on the other team, who is about three levels above us. Luckily he is generous and doesn’t totally dominate, looking to pass off, reather than just charge the net every time.

The rest of us scramble and try to hold our positions and work on clean passing, battling for the puck against the boards and finding teammates in space. I feel like I’m skating okay.

In fact, after several shifts, a miracle happens. Brendan is near the boards and we’re in attack. He passes in-board to another teammate who swipes towards goal. It beats everybody but skims across the front of the goal and guess who is right there, miraculously all alone and in the perfect spot to trap and tap the puck through the vacant bottom hole in the imitation goalie’s defence?

Uh huh. You know it. IN YOUR FACE, IMITATION GOALIE!

N. Place scores his first ever genuine matchplay goal in Dev League. Oh yeah.

And while we’re on miracles on ice (good film, btw) … in the very next shift, I’m mid-ice as two or three white team opponents move forward. One loses control of the puck for a moment, I snipe it and suddenly I’m clear on a breakaway.

And I don’t even panic and close to within 6-8 metres and shoot and score! Iin the same slot.

Truth be told, this shot may have grazed the imitation goalie fabric (Big Cat Place, The Artist Formerly Known As Kittens*, ever supportive, remains adamant it wasn’t a goal), but Army as ref signalled goal, and Tommy Powell, the other ref, congratulated me later on the snipe and counter attack goal. I grudgingly admitted I thought it might not have been clean but he said it looked fine to him.

“So you reckon it was good, and Army signalled goal. Good enough for me,” I said. “I’m claiming it.”

Ice star Tommy Powell is all-business, reffing our game.

Two goals in two shifts.Wow.

In Tuesday Dev League, it’s shift on, shift off (1 min, 15 sec each time) so I had more than a minute to patiently explain to my teammates on the bench how brilliant each goal was before the next shift. Which was awesome for them.

In fact, on the shift after my second goal, I was designated for D (defence) and jumped the wall, saying loudly: “Well, I am the premier goalscorer but for the good of the team, I guess I’ll shore up the defence as well.” … all of which I thought was funny until I saw Tommy’s face as he overheard this. “Jokes, Tommy, jokes,” I gasped, hustling to pick up some pace, the puck already in play.

All in all, had a blast. By now, as you can imagine, any aches and pains were a distant memory. I was floating. I went over a couple of times, as you do, but was reasonably solid on my skates and my puck-handling is definitely improving every game.

The best thing about finishing a game at 6.30 pm is that you’re home, with take-away food, at a decent time to watch the highlights of the Red Wings’ 7-2 smashing of Columbus (Oh yeah! Found our mojo right before the play-offs – Mack, Will and I are more in man-love with the rookie, Nyquist, than ever), plus Robot Chicken and Sherlock before bed … still arguing with your oldest son over whether fabric moving matters if two Melbourne Ice stars have agreed it’s a goal.

Bloody kids.

(* Big Cat scored two goals as well. And, because I’m a lot more fucking gracious than he is, it should be recorded that one was a sizzling shot from near the boards. Zetterberg, eat your heart out.)

The goalie’s lament

A goalie's dread: the puck in the net. Pic: ibtimes.com

We might have lost one. The Icehouse Rookies, as our class of 2011 has taken to calling ourselves, is a member down after the weekend.

I am not standing in judgement. I want to make that clear from the start because this is a difficult post to write.

Summer league is currently happening and on Sunday the Tigersharks played the Devils. No sugar-coating, it was a massacre. The final score was, I believe, 20-0. That’s a goal every third minute, assuming it was a normal length hockey game.

The losing side’s goalie, Jason, appears to have hung up his pads in the wake of such a caning. I’m hoping that’s not the case and this entire post is premature but our Icehouse Rookies’ Facebook group (which rocks, btw, as a community) has been fielding requests for a potential fill-in goalie for the next game and beyond.

Jason must be in a bad place and it got me thinking about the attrition rate over the course of this year. As I wrote in my very first nickdoeshockey post, I have always felt just one bad fall, one vital broken bone, away from this whole hockey adventure crashing to a halt.

I’ve seen that happen too; players with broken collar bones or other nasty injuries. One woman in my second Intro class was a decent skater but landed hard on her chest during supermans, hobbled to the bench in pain (I have it on good authority this is chick equivalent of being kicked in the balls), cried a little and it occurred to me weeks later that I had never seen her again.

I’ve stepped out of classes right now because I felt exposed and potentially humiliated by my lack of skating skill (especially once most of a Division 4 team joined my Intermediate class for extra training, skating literal rings around me, and becoming frustrated when us lesser players couldn’t keep up with their drilled moves).

But this is the first case I know of where somebody has actually walked away from the game.

The reality is that us rookies are forever bordering on exposure as the starters we are, and the system, as it stands, doesn’t do much to protect us. It’s skate to keep up, or fail publicly. Of course, for the goalies, this is magnified hugely. I read a book while in America called “Open Ice” by a former Sports Illustrated hockey writer, Jack Falla, who had spent his youth as a goalie. He talked about the endless hours of taking shots, on the ice, in his driveway, anywhere he could absorb thousands and thousands of pucks/shots. I was doing other things for 45 years before January … and given my age as a rookie, I’ve been painfully aware of all the people who started skating 30 years or more before me. For goalies like Jason, it’s, again, magnified.

I wasn’t at Sunday’s game but, reading the Facebook accounts, Jason faced something like 51 shots on goal. So he stopped 31. In a NHL game, that’s a very good night’s work for a goalie. But of course, 20 got through, which is less thrilling and has apparently drained his self-confidence.

To have that many shots pepper a goalface is an impossible task for a goalie. It means the defence is not working, and the forwards are not playing each-way effectively (sorry to the Tigersharks – trust me, I’m not saying I would have done better. In fact, I’m sure I would have been worse).

But while those players will spend the week nursing nasty plus/minus figures and copping some ribbing from rival teams, Jason can know only the baseline figure.

Twenty. Compared to a shut-out. And feel responsible.

I’ve hung out with Jason at General Skates, stood on the ice with him while he explained new angles and ways of covering the goal that he’d learned in his first ever game the week before. It was a total voyage of discovery and there was no way of gaining this education without playing, and almost certainly losing.

He spoke with passion and enthusiasm, and I hate to think of him this week, deciding the sport is simply too hard. I really, really hope he connects with his temmates or the wider hockey community and realises nobody thinks badly of him for the weekend’s scoreline. We all get it. We will all have our bad days. The Wings’ stand-in goalie Ty Conklin is going through an NHL version of Jason’s angst right now. It never stops.

It seems to me that one of the major issues with hockey in Victoria is that there are a couple of badly needed missing-steps in the development path. Jason just tumbled off one of those unnecessarily large ledges. Summer League, and all the steps past Dev League, are fraught for newbies like us because we step straight onto the ice against potentially much better players. Players coming out of class want to join teams but might not be ready for genuine competition. With such limited ice time, for training as well as competition, players get squeezed into the same matches, and slaughters like the weekend become possible.

Some rookies, like me, are taking it cautiously. Others are charging into teams as fast as they can, on the theory that scrimmages and actual matches will improve them in ways rounds of Intermediate classes never will.

It’s a decent plan except that it means teams can be wildly mismatched, and results like last weekend happen.

Even drop-in hockey, where anybody can show up for an impromptu game at the Icehouse, is open to everybody. So last week, you had Intermediate class members, maybe even Intro players, out on the ice against or alongside Tommy Powell, Army and other Melbourne Ice players. Plus Shona, captain of the Ice women’s team. Tommy is set to represent Australia in Poland next year, but is skating against, potentially, me. This seems dangerous, relying completely on the Ice players to back off the throttle to cater for the L-platers in their midst, which they invariably do, but that must suck for them as well.

We definitely need Intermediate drop-in. We definitely need more ice time for rookie teams to wobble around and get their legs in games, even if we all understand there are only a couple of rinks and only so many hours in a day. But push is coming to shove. Devils smashing Tigersharks does nobody any favours.

ONE LAST THING:

Jason, if you read this, one last, left-field thing to consider. I hang out with a bunch of professional magicians and they have an understanding: if you choose to perform card tricks or other sleight of hand, for an audience or just friends, it is recognised that it will go catastrophically wrong probably 10 times in your career. I’m talking, no way out, complete disaster, self-inflicted, user-error, in-front-of-an-audience, floor-open-up-and-swallow-me-please humiliation.

Ten times.

So every time it happens – and oh God, it’s nasty when it does (I’m up to four) – you die a little, but you take a breath and say very deliberately: OK, that’s another of the 10 out of the way, never to be suffered again. It’s a rite of magical passage, so to speak, and is accepted. Hated but accepted.

By 10, you should have your chops.

And so, post-disaster, you lick your ego wounds, work on your card skills, figure out how you fucked up, and find somebody else to perform the same trick too. And you get it right and breathe again …

Put the pads back on, Jason. Nobody wants to see you slink away. You just endured one of the Big Ten. I’m going to as well. It would be awesome to see you at the rink.

Getting edgy

Since I got back from the Gold Coast, I’ve managed to hit the ice a few times. I had a morning skate, which I always love because a) the ice is practically empty and b) those who are there are usually interesting.

On Tuesday, there were a few figure skaters doing their thing and one older dude speed skating, but in third gear. As in, sort of lazily doing laps but in full speed-skate position, one arm behind back, crouched, long strides.

I was down on the goal line at the far end of the rink, entertaining the hockey Gods with my attempts

Cossack dancing: Not so good on the ice, or on new edges.

to skate only on my outside edges along the line, or doing the tight-turn drill Army had us doing a few weeks ago, stepping over the line and trying to turn as tightly as possible on one foot, either inside or outside edge.

Like I said, the key word here is attempting.

While I was getting up off the deck from one such attempt, another hockey player hit the ice. Tall, dark, dashing. Name of Tom, once we’d introduced ourselves. He skated like a dream, with powerful confident strides, broken only by the occasional flawless one-foot hockey stop, snow flying. Or to pivot effortlessly, to either side. Or to skate backwards, with the occasional backward crossover to mix things up.

“Wow,” I said. “What level are you at? Dev league?”

“Intro,” he said.

Motherfucker.

But one thing I liked about him: he fell over a lot. As in, I’d be doing my thing on that far goal line and I’d hear the crash as Tom bodily hit the boards at speed at the other end (figure skaters, not so happy). Tom was fully prepared to push himself and his ability beyond comfortable, which I liked him for. It was apparently his first time in armour, so he figured he may as well as crash and get used to it.

Falling is the only way to get better, as they keep telling us in class, and as I keep proving … but without getting better. (Ok, maybe a bit, at glacier pace.) Another friend was skating last night as we finished class and was proud and/or relieved to get through the skate with a dry butt, which is reasonable. I looked down at my hockey kit, covered in snow from repeated falls. Maybe that’s the key: to know that by wearing the kit, you’re padded and able to get wet and icy without worrying?

At class last night, Melbourne Ice player Tommy Powell joined Shona and Scuba in putting us through lots of drills. Heaps of skating, which was good, involving puck handling, one-on-two, attack-and-defence. Fun.

Well, eventually fun. To start things off, they had us doing all sorts of skating drills, such as skating and crouching while trying to put one leg forward and then the other, like a Russian Cossack dancer jogging. Nuts. In fact, here’s video of our class trying it. (I’m the one in the traditional Red Wings colours). See for yourself.

I had just had my skates re-edged and to a different, deeper cut. Having new edges always makes me skate like a drunkard (ok, even more so), and I was not loving these drills to push your skating ability. My feet felt wrong all night and I was wobbly, but not so badly that I didn’t enjoy the class.

Talking to Josh, a classmate, between drills, he said that it usually takes him three skates before new edges feel okay. So I had better try to somehow skate between now and Saturday’s next official Intermediate outing. Or maybe I should just wear the skates to the supermarket, or for a day at work … that should blunt the edge, huh?

In other news: Our big USA trip is close to booked and looks like including four Red Wings games. One in Washington (four rows back from the glass: booked!), three at the Joe Louis Arena, plus a tour of the facility by the Wings, who seem genuinely pleased we’re making the trip from Melbourne. And, for a change-up, we are also ticketed for Harry Potter World in Florida.

Life is about diversity. Write that down.